In our book, When Science Goes Wrong: The Desire and Search for the Truth (recently published by Paulist Press—click here for it), Br. Guy Consolmagno and I discuss a battle of science versus religion. This battle did not turn out the way we all tend to think of science-religion battles turning out. We think of those battles as being ones in which religion retreats before the advance of scientific progress. In the battle over measuring and valuing human beings, however, things have gone otherwise. As we discuss in the book, whereas certain nineteenth-century “men of science” did much huffing and puffing about religion (with its ideas about humankind) needing to get out of science’s way—with Galileo and the Church being cited, of course—ultimately it was the ideas of those men that collapsed. What stands now is a very old religious idea: that all human beings are of one family.
Traditional Judeo-Christian thought has maintained that all human beings are of one family. All are descendants of one couple (Adam and Eve), and secondly, all are descendants of three couples (Noah’s sons and their wives). This is “monogenism”—a single origin for all humanity.
But history shows that another idea about human origins has commonly been in play, too. This was the idea that different “types” of people—for example, light-skinned, light-haired Europeans and dark-skinned, dark-haired Africans—had separate origins. There were, this idea said, actually different species of human (-like) creatures, with these different species commonly being called “races”. This idea is “polygenism”—multiple origins for the multiple “types” or “races” of “humanity”, with most “races” not being of the line of Adam, Eve, Noah, etc. Giordano Bruno, the guy who supported Copernicus and argued for an infinite universe of other suns orbited by other inhabited Earths, also argued in 1591 that the different “races” could not all have a common origin.
For of many colors
Are the species of men, and the black race
Of the Ethiopians, and the yellow offspring of America…
Cannot be traced to the same descent, nor are they sprung
From the generative force of a single progenitor.
Bruno noted that “it is said in the prophets… that all races of men are to be traced to one first father”, but he adds that “no one of sound judgement can refer the Ethiopian race to that protoplast.” Sound judgement trumps Scripture.
Bruno’s singling out “Ethiopians” was typical. For those who believed that there were different races/species of people, the race/species that was typically considered most removed from Adam’s lineage was the “black race”. Black people were not human beings, the idea went, and that was just a fact of science.
How could the polygenists ever claim that this was a fact of science? After all, as Morgan Godwyn pointed out in his 1680 book The Negro’s & Indians Advocate, Suing for their Admission into the Church: or Persuasive to the Instructing and Baptizing of the Negro’s and Indians in our Plantations, different species do not beget fertile offspring. A horse and an ass can beget a hybrid offspring called a “mule”. However, mules are sterile. They cannot beget more mules. Thus, said Godwyn, if different human “races” were different species, then the “Mulatto’s and Mestizo’s…. and all these Moors, must, like the Mules… be for ever Barren”. They would all lack the “prolific faculty, and never be able to procreate their like”. And yet “the contrary whereof is daily seen”—all these “mixed race” people are fertile; they have children. Thus, it would seem that humans are of one family, whatever “race” they may be, and that was just a fact of science.
But the polygenists claimed science anyway. J. H. Van Evrie (M.D.) in his 1861 book Negroes and Negro “Slavery” argued that not all “hybrids” had the immediate infertility of a mule:
[T]he inference… that whites and negroes were of the same species, because the mulatto, unlike the mule, did reproduce itself, is simply absurd…. The mulatto, literally speaking, or in the ordinary sense, does beget offspring, but mulattoism is as positively sterile as muleism. The phenomenon of hybridity is manifested, as has been stated, in conformity with the nature of the beings concerned, and as the human creatures are separated by an almost measureless as well as impassable distance from the horse and ass, the laws of hybridity are, of course, correspondingly different. Instead of a single generation, as in the animals referred to, sterility in the human creatures is embraced within four generations, where a boundary is arrived at as absolutely fixed and impassable as the single generation in the case of the former.
Van Evrie goes on to argue that the evidence for this is overwhelming, to the point that
all the dealers in “slaves” and many “slave owners” know this from observation and individual experience, and while entirely ignorant of any thing like the scientific formulæ here presented, not a few among the former have actually stated it to the author [that is, to Van Evrie] in total unconsciousness that either he or any one else had ever thus formalized the essential character of mulattoism.
Van Evrie was not alone in his ideas. As Br. Guy and I discuss in When Science Goes Wrong, the 1850 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science featured discussion of how the “types” of human beings were fixed, because “hybrids” were sterile in the long term, and thus died out.
This business of who was human mattered, and it mattered a lot. The science of polygenism was central to the whole business of racial slavery and oppression. As Van Evrie himself noted,
If the Negro had descended from the same parentage, or, except in color merely, was the same being as ourselves…. then it would be [a Christian’s] first and most imperative duty… to set an example to others, to labor night and day to elevate this (in that case) wronged and outraged race—indeed, to suffer every personal inconvenience, even martyrdom itself in the performance of a duty so obvious and necessary.
Given this, if science said that humans were not all from the same parentage, then clearly there was going to be a battle of science vs. religion. Van Evrie again:
A certain reverend and rather distinguished gentleman has publicly and repeatedly declared “that the doctrine of a single human race underlies the whole fabric of religious belief, and if it is rejected, Christianity will be lost to mankind!” What miserable folly, if nothing worse, is this! It is a virtual declaration that we must believe or pretend to believe, what we know to be a lie, in order to pursue what we believe to be a truth. The existence of different species of men belongs to the category of physical fact—a thing subject to the decision of the senses, and belief neither has nor can have anything to do with the matter.
Van Evrie goes on to say that, “It is not the desire of the writer [that is, of Van Evrie] to either reconcile the merits of science with those peculiar interpretations of the Bible, nor to exhibit any contradictions with those interpretations.” But he then goes into a short “religion and science” discussion that reads like a dark distillation of Galileo’s famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of 1615, in which Galileo laid out his ideas about dealing with supposed contradictions between the Bible and science. Here is Van Evrie’s discussion:
We cannot believe that which we know to be untrue, and to affect such belief however good the motive may seem, must necessarily debauch and demoralize the whole moral structure. There are many things—such as the belief in the doctrine of election, original sin, of justification by faith, that admit of belief—honest, earnest, undoubting belief—for they are abstractions and purely matters of faith that can never be brought to the test of physical demonstration, or to the standard of material fact, but the question of race—the fact of distinct races or rather the existence of species of Caucasian, Mongols, Negroes, etc., are physical facts, subject to the senses, and it is beyond the control of the will to refuse assent to their actual presence…. It is possible to deceive and delude ourselves, and believe or think that we believe many things which our interest, our prejudices, and our caprices prompt us to believe, but they must be things of an abstract nature, where there are no physical tests to embarrass us or to compel the will to bow to that fixed and immutable standard of truth which the Eternal has planted in the very heart of things.
Van Evrie echoes (knowingly or not) Galileo’s argument to Christina that astronomers must not be asked to “protect themselves against their own observations and demonstrations”, to “do the impossible”; no one can “require that they not only should not see what they see and not understand what they understand, but also that in their research they should find the contrary of what they find”.* Galileo goes on to urge the knowledgeable “to agree to examine very diligently the difference between debatable and demonstrative doctrines. Keeping firmly in mind the compelling power of necessary deductions, they should see more clearly that it is not within the power of the practitioners of demonstrative sciences to change opinion at will, choosing now this and now that one.” Likewise, “no creature has the power of making [the arguments of Copernicus] true or false, contrary to what they happen to be by nature and de facto. So it seems more advisable to first become sure about the necessary and immutable truth of the matter, over which no one has control.” It does not take much to imagine Galileo’s letter to Christina re-written so that it defends, not the idea of Earth’s motion in the face of biblical passages indicating Earth’s immobility, but rather the idea that certain people are not members of the human family in the face of biblical passages indicating that they are.
Of course, the “religion-science battle” over the human family turned out a lot differently from the battle over the Earth’s motion: traditional religious ideas held; modern science shows humans to be all of one family. Godwyn was right. Van Evries was wrong.
Indeed, Van Evries and his group were so wrong that people today don’t call what they did “science”—today that gets called “pseudo”-science. They were so wrong that any scientist today who was to use their language would be regarded as a crackpot of the most unpleasant sort. By contrast, (as Br. Guy and I point out in When Science Goes Wrong) those who argued against Earth’s motion may have been wrong, but even modern astronomers use the language of an immobile Earth from time to time; we speak of celestial objects “rising” and “setting”, for example.
Imagine then, that Galileo’s letter to Christina was in defense of polygenism, not Earth’s motion. Imagine that Galileo’s work bolstered Bruno’s ideas about the “black race of the Ethiopians” not being children of Adam, rather than Bruno’s ideas about the Earth being a planet in orbit about the sun. How would Galileo’s opponents be seen now? How would that “science vs. religion” battle be seen now? How would Bruno be seen? How would all science vs. religion battles be seen?
It is sometimes argued that science is self-correcting and based on empirical evidence, and that makes it the best basis for knowledge—or perhaps even the only valid basis for knowledge. The science-religion battle over polygenism challenges this. If science eventually self-corrects, but before doing so it provides a basis, a factual basis (supposedly), for wreaking havoc with the lives of entire peoples, then maybe we should consider in a more favorable light the validity of the basis for knowledge of a person like Godwyn. In 1680 he wrote that the idea that black people (“these poor People, from whose labour their [enslavers’] Wealth and Livelihoods do wholly arise”) are not human, but rather are “brutes”, was among the ideas,
without doubt contrived in Hell, receiving their first impressions in no other than the Devil’s Mint, purposely designed for the murthering of Souls; Invented only to defeat the Mercies of God in their blessed Redeemer, and to render void and ineffectual his precious Blood shed upon the Cross, for the saving of the World.**
Godwyn was not making a scientific assessment of things, but science today uniformly stands with him, not with Van Evries—in principal if not in religious language. Sometimes those science-religion battles do not turn out the way we think of those battles turning out.
*Note that no one asked this. Those who opposed Galileo saw what he saw and found what he found. Pope Urban VIII, who eventually turned so harshly against Galileo, formerly praised him for seeing what he saw and finding what he found. Galileo’s opponents did not, however, interpret the data in the way he interpreted it.
**An interesting side note on Godwyn. Godwyn, in 1680, mentions how “the Missionaries of the Roman Church… are said to represent our Blessed Saviour in the Negro’s Complexion” in facilitating their conversion. It seems those missionaries recognized in themselves, in those they sought to bring to Christianity, and in Jesus, the same human family.